From Trump to Oprah, Speakers Offer Parting Advice to Grads

Oprah Winfrey was the speaker at Smith College’s 139th commencement exercises in Northampton, Mass. Oprah Winfrey told students to live with purpose. (David Molnar/Springfield Republican via AP, File)

BOSTON (AP) — Oprah Winfrey told students to live with purpose. President Donald Trump said to ignore the naysayers. Will Ferrell sang some Whitney Houston.

Those are a few of the speakers who have taken the stage at college graduation ceremonies this month to share their wisdom, joining a wide range of others in entertainment, politics, business and journalism. In their efforts to inspire the Class of 2017, they’ve elicited both laughter and tears and, in some cases, jeers.

Rock group Bon Jovi drew a chorus of cheers when it played a surprise set for graduates at New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson University last week. Meanwhile, students at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida booed, jeered and turned their backs on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during her speech at the historically Black college in Dayton a Beach, Fla.

Colleges have different approaches when it comes to picking speakers, which helps explain the wide range of figures at the podium. Some leave it entirely to administrators. Others gather input from students. Many compete for marquee speakers who will dazzle the audience and inspire alumni to become donors, all while avoiding controversy.

“They want somebody high-profile who will impress the students, alumni and the parents,” said Michael Frick, CEO of, a booking agency based in California whose clients include some colleges. “They don’t want to take away from the students’ moment or the commencement, but they do want publicity.”

While their words of wisdom haven’t changed much over the years, speakers now come from a broader range of fields, Frick said. Someone who has given a popular TED Talk can now land an invitation to speak at graduation. And celebrities, once seen as gimmicky speakers, are now heavily recruited by colleges.

A sampling of this year’s speakers and their messages:


Funnyman Will Ferrell gave a candid speech at the University of Southern California, where he once studied sports information and jokingly described it as “a program so difficult, so arduous that they discontinued the major eight years after I left.”

He told graduates about his own fears as he jumped into a comedy career that led him to “Saturday Night Live” and Hollywood. “Yes, I was afraid. You’re never not afraid. I was afraid to write this speech, and now I’m realizing how many people are watching me right now, and it’s scary,” he said. He added that, “My fear of failure never approached in magnitude my fear of ‘What if?’ ‘What if I never tried at all?'”

For graduates who hadn’t figured out their plans yet, he offered some comfort: “That’s the same chair that I sat in. Enjoy the process of your search without succumbing to the pressure of the result. Trust your gut. Keep throwing darts at the dartboard. Don’t listen to the critics and you will figure it out.”

Then he sang an oddly sweet 90 seconds of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger told graduates of the University of Houston not to believe the myth that he’s a self-made man: “I didn’t make it this far on my own,” the former bodybuilder, actor and California governor said. “To accept that credit or that mantle would discount every single person who has helped me to get here today.”

He added that “as soon as you understand that you are here because of a lot of help, then you also understand that now is time to help others. That’s what this is all about — you’ve got to help others. Don’t just think about yourself.”

Oprah Winfrey told graduates at Smith College to live with purpose, saying that was the key to her long-running daytime talk show.

“I made a clear intention to use every show to inform, to encourage, to inspire, to uplift and entertain at the same time,” she said. “I decided that the notion of intention — knowing why you want to do something, not just doing it but understanding the why behind the doing — could also change the paradigm for every show.”

Winfrey added that if students listen to others and “make it your intention to serve through your life with purpose, you will have a blessed life.”


The U.S. president is traditionally the nation’s most sought-after speaker. This year, Trump spoke at Liberty University in Virginia and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut, where he blasted his critics and offered a lesson to cadets.

“Look at the way I’ve been treated lately, especially by the media. No politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly,” he said. “You can’t let them get you down. You can’t let the critics and the naysayers get in the way of your dreams. I guess that’s why we won.”

He added some advice: “Adversity makes you stronger. Don’t give in. Don’t back down. And never stop doing what you know is right. Nothing worth doing ever, ever, ever came easy. And the more righteous your right, the more opposition that you will face.”

At other colleges, some elected officials took shots at Trump. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat, called on graduates of Boston’s Wheelock College to help improve a political landscape she called “ugly and frustrating.”

Warren took a jab at Trump’s claims about the crowd size at his inauguration ceremony, saying that “according to the official White House crowd counters, there are over 14 million people here today and I want to thank you all.” She added that the famed left-field wall at Boston’s Fenway Park is “the only wall I would like to see in this country.”

Unlike Trump, who told cadets that America is “becoming very, very prosperous again,” Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders warned students that “we live in a pivotal and dangerous moment in American history, and nobody knows what the future will bring us.”

Sanders, an independent, warned graduates at Vermont’s Johnson State College that the rich are getting richer at the expense of the middle class, and that the world’s future is in the hands of today’s college graduates.

“If there was ever a time in history for a generation to be bold and to think big, to stand up and to fight back, now is that time,” he said.


Howard Schultz, executive chairman of Starbucks, told students at Arizona State University that he’s living proof of the American dream. He described growing up in poverty before building a company with more than 26,000 stores.

“But today, you may question the strength of that dream and the promise of America. That’s fair,” he said. “My generation has not made it easy for you. Our political leaders on both sides of the aisle have not acted with enough courage, nor honesty, in addressing the long-term challenges we face.”

Still, Schultz said he’s optimistic about America’s future.

“Your generation can bring people together like no other,” he said. “You can innovate, create and lead. Your generation will transform our economy and create millions of new jobs. You will develop cleaner energy. You will make it so racism only exists in history books.”

At Virginia Tech, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg talked about resiliency, invoking both the school’s response to a mass shooting in 2007, and her own response to the unexpected death of her husband in 2015.

“Two years ago, if someone had told me that I would lose the love of my life and become more grateful, I would have never have believed them. But that’s what happened. Because today I am more grateful now than I ever was before — for my family and especially my children. For my friends. For my work. For life itself.”

Her advice to students: “As you leave this beautiful campus and set out into the world, build resilience in yourselves. When tragedy or disappointment strikes, know that deep inside you, you have the ability to get through anything. I promise you do. As the saying goes, we are more vulnerable than we ever thought, but we are stronger than we ever imagined.”


Frick, of, said well-known journalists have always been popular picks for commencement speakers. “They have two things going for them,” he said. “They’re famous — people know them, they’re on TV all the time — but they’re also seen as being intellectually more rigorous than an actor.”

Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent, told graduates of Boston’s Northeastern University to combat the “assault on the truth” by some world leaders.

“To all of you: Be the generation that changes this toxic brew of polarization and partisanship that we’re drowning in and that threatens to destroy our civilizations and our democracies and our societies. Bad things do happen when good people do nothing, so let us all be good people determined to do something.”

Amanpour, who has covered major conflicts around the world, added that students shouldn’t fear compromise.

“What has moved me the most over all the years of reporting from deadly and dark corners and conflict zones is the bright light of compromise, forgiveness, empathy, compassion even between the bitterest of enemies. Watching them overcome and even become partners if not friends has been deeply meaningful for me,” she said.

At Bucknell University in central Pennsylvania, CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria defended the value of a liberal-arts education but criticized student protests at college campuses that have derailed speeches by controversial figures.

“This strikes me as fundamentally illiberal, if not un-American,” he said, adding that “freedom of speech, freedom of thought is not freedom for people we like, for warm, fuzzy ideas that you find comfortable. It is for ideas that you find offensive. Not just wrong, but offensive.”

Zakaria has faced criticism in recent years and was briefly suspended by CNN and Time magazine in 2012 over allegations of plagiarism. He didn’t mention his troubles in the speech, instead focusing on narrow-mindedness on both sides of the political spectrum.

“There is, we all know, a kind of anti-intellectualism on the right these days, the denial of facts, of reason, of science, but there is also an anti-intellectualism on the left, an attitude of self-righteousness that says we are so pure, we are so morally superior we cannot bear to hear an idea that we don’t like or disagree with,” he said. “There is no such idea, there is no idea that is beyond the pale. Everything should be within the arena and should be worth contesting.”

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